Based in Tokyo, Japan, the Sanrio Corporation was founded by Shintaro Tsuji as the Yamanashi Silk Company in 1960, intended to produce a line of character merchandise and stationary appropriate for Japanese gift-giving occasions. In 1973 the company was officially established under the name “Sanrio,” which combines the Japanese word “San” (meaning three) and the Spanish word “Rio” (meaning river). By 1990, Sanrio was the largest greeting card company in Japan, with a cat named Hello Kitty as its most popular character. Currently, Hello Kitty represents roughly 5,000 of the 15,000 Sanrio products available, and she accounts for over half of Sanrio’s annual sales, which reached approximately $1.2 billion dollars (¥139 billion) in the year 2000 alone. Despite the fact that Hello Kitty has helped Sanrio gain worldwide notoriety, more than 90 percent of the company’s sales are generated in Japan, where Sanrio owns a restaurant chain, movie theaters and a production company, a television and video game series, book and magazine publications, two amusement parks, and a franchises a chain of more than 2,500 retail stores.
Perhaps one of the most influential factors in Hello Kitty’s popularity in Japan is the younger Japanese generations’ mania for ‘kawaii‘ (cuteness), an attribute that has often served as the character’s primary marketing tool. Although the somewhat expressionless cat was originally marketed toward young girls between the ages of five and six who are too young to play with Dora or appreciate Barbie, Hello Kitty mania has spread to adults and teens alike, quickly proving to be a serious commercial and cultural commodity far beyond its target audience. The rise of cuteness in Japanese culture emerged in the 1970s through the development of a style of cute handwriting known as Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting that was developed as an underground movement by Japanese teenage girls. Today, the phenomenon of kawaii extends far beyond cute handwriting and is now associated with acting childishly, using infantile slang words, idols such as Seiko Matsuda, cute fashion, and miniature products, and is no longer limited to teenagers. The fascination with making things as cute as possible, even common household items, has now been embraced by people of all ages, to the point that Japan now depicts Pikachu on their airplanes, and each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, the Tokyo police, The Japan Post and the government television station all have their own cute mascots. Sanrio’s line of products featuring Hello Kitty and more than 50 other kawaii characters has been the most successful to capitalize on the cute trend in Japan and the rest of the world. The Hello Kitty image has been easily exportable, particularly in the United States, where trendiness legitimizes the cat for a whole new generation and nationality of consumers. As with all of its characters, Sanrio markets Hello Kitty on nearly every product, including a condominium complex, toasters, cell phones, cars, and even a maternity hospital.
While this obsession with Hello Kitty is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity, it is still a very specialized in the United States often associated with what Christopher Noxon refers to as “re-juvenilization” and defines as “a new breed of adult, identified by a commitment to remain playful, energetic and fun in the face of adult responsibilities. Whether buying cars marketed to consumers half their age, dressing in baby-doll fashions or bonding over games like Twister or stick ball, this new band of grownups refuses to give up childish things they never stopped loving, or else revels in things they were denied or never got around to as children. Most have busy lives and adult responsibilities. Many have children of their own. They are not stunted adolescents. They are something new: rejuveniles.” This phenomenon of re-juvenilization in the U.S. has been able to find substantial validity in Japan’s kawaii exports, particularly Hello Kitty, due to her current status as trendy and couture among celebrities and the fashion elite. Indeed, Hello Kitty has been increasingly liked with cuteness and re-juvenilization as a movement for the most affluent of consumers, evident in new lines of lavish products such as the Kimora Lee Simmons line of diamond jewelry, the Three Apples Fashion Show, Hello Kitty credit cards and Tarina Tarantino jewelry. By placing such a juvenile character on such expensive and adult products, Hello Kitty helps to blur the generation gap in the United States and allows women specifically to figuratively stave off the societal and physical signs of aging by reliving their childhood mannerisms. In turn, this regression is represented not as immaturity, but as a bold and fashionable statement of self-representation, primarily due to the very adult income required to maintain the Hello Kitty “look”.
Kawaii and Japanese culture in general has been a large component to American high-fashion, and Hello Kitty is a dominant purveyor of this representation. Often pictured in kimonos or as a geisha, and depicted on bento boxes, fans, chopsticks, etcetera, Hello Kitty serves as access to Japan and allows Westerners a small piece of involvement in Japanese and kawaii culture. In fact, in 2008 Hello Kitty was officially named the official tourism ambassador of Japan, exhibiting the nation’s desire to have the character expressly linked with their country and to serve as a representation of their culture.
Surprisingly, however, Hello Kitty equally serves as a culturally neutral or mukokuseki character, often depicted in culturally unidentifiable clothing and seen in very vague locations filled with circular trees and generic box houses. Even more surprisingly, Hello Kitty is sometimes portrayed in a very Western light such as wearing and “I love New York” t-shirt, and features an entire line of products with French phrases that display Hello Kitty in front of the Eiffel Tower wearing a beret. This variety of representations of the same character are largely what has attributed to Hello Kitty’s popularity worldwide, as she can change to meet the desires of each consumer and appeals to a variety of nationalities and cultural preferences.
Regardless of whether it is in Japan or in the United States, the rejuvenile movement allows new generations of teens and adults alike to defy previously existing social and economic structures. Perhaps in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres, the cause of the youth statement lies not in a revolt against the adult life but in the refusal to give up the pampered, materialistic childhood lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed. In Japan, the baby-boom generation, which had achieved affluence during the economic bubble years, spoiled today’s young adults with material goods and amusements while neglecting to prepare them for entering into society, and a similar pattern has surfaced in the United States. Will cute culture’s emphasis on consumerism, pleasure and indulgence result in nothing but social turmoil, as seen in the phenomenon of “freeters“ in Japan and the “Quarter life Crisis” in the United States?”
Further Discussion Questions
Is the Hello Kitty craze helping or harming the global perception of Japan in terms of the country’s post-bubble well-being?
Is Hello Kitty soft power for Japan, or does the re-juvenilization associated with kawaii make it part of a different cultural phenomenon?
Does Hello Kitty perhaps hold the most soft-power for Japan compared to other post bubble products do to its global appeal, high price tag and overwhelming presence?
What does the fact that kawaii appeals to both sexes in Japan, but almost soley to women in the Untied states say about the dynamics of gender representations in Japan?
Greeting card site http://www.sanrio.com/sanriogreetingcards/ Accessed April 10, 2010.
“Anamoulous Female Teenage Handwriting.” Japan Talk. http://www.japan-talk.com/jt/guide/anomalous-female-teenage-handwriting. Accessed April 8, 2010.
Kawaii http://www.supercutekawaii.com/ Accessed April 10, 2010.
Kosugi, Reiko. “Youth Employment Within Japan’s Economic Recovery: Freeters and NEETS.” The Asia/Pacific Journal, May 11, 2006. http://www.japanfocus.org/-Kosugi-Reiko/2022. Accessed April 6, 2010.
Lee, Diana. “Inside Look at Japanese Cute Culture,” September 1, 2005. http://uniorb.com/ATREND/Japanwatch/cute.htm. Acessed April 9, 2010.
Noxon, Christopher. Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up . Random House, 2007.
San Rio info and history. http://www.portalbrain.com/hellokitty/hellokittyhistory.html. Accessed April 10, 2010.
Skov, Liese. Brian, Moeran. Women, Media and Consumption in Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 1995. pp. 222-230.
Vanrenen, Bess. Generation What?: Dispatches from the quarter-life crisis. Fulcrom Publishing, 2007.
Entry contributed by Shannon Grunewald